This Just In: Words Matter

November 19, 2012

My friend Bob Burg and I share something in common: we really dislike it when people say things that just ain’t so. Especially in print, or from positions of influence where their words are liable to be passed on widely.

Like the old statistic that says, “7 percent of our communication is conveyed by our actual words, while 38 percent comes through our tone of voice and the other 55 percent from our body language.”

If you’ve ever heard that bit of “scientific research” cited, perhaps you found yourself wondering, “Wait a minute. Can that really be true?”

No, it can’t — and it isn’t.

Did you know that of the supposedly true statistics published authors quote, more than 87 percent of them are in fact just made up, and not based on solid research? Shocking, isn’t it? But guess what? I just made that up.

But back to the 7 percent. If this were true (as I wrote in The Zen of MLM), then it wouldn’t really matter that much what we said, because our words would represent only about one-fourteenth of our message, so who cares? But it isn’t true, and it does matter.

In fact, these widely quoted numbers are a horribly skewed distortion of genuine research conducted forty years ago by the distinguished UCLA psychologist Albert Mehrabian, who was studying what happened when he gave subjects specific individual words to say, with the instructions to say them while at the same time doing their best to convey a totally different meaning. For example, saying “Brute!” or “Scram!” nicely.

Single words, with intentionally mixed messages, and heard only on tape recordings.

The only facial expressions subjects saw were from black and white still photos, not live encounters.

Zero body language was involved.

The 7:38:55 ratio is actually a theoretical composite, produced by combining two different findings from two completely different experiments that studied two completely different things.

Mehrabian himself has repeatedly insisted that his findings cannot be extrapolated to communication in general. In fact, you can hear him say it right here, in this five-minute interview with Mehrabian himself, which Bob kindly sent me on email today, prompting this post. [Alas, that link is now broken.]

In Mark Twain’s wonderful The Diaries of Adam and Eve, Eve writes admiringly, sort of, about her new acquaintance, Adam: “He knows a great many things … but they are not so.”

She might as well have been writing about the human race at large.


  1. Matt D'Rion

    Thanks for writing this John. It was amusing and made me think.

  2. Christie Ellis

    I love this! When I was writing my book I had that information in there, and Bob so kindly, and politely, said that information just isn’t true. I had no idea! Just goes to show you that before you put it in writing, no matter how many times you heard it to be true, you have to check the research.

  3. Bob Burg

    I agree with at least 7% of this. However, I’m also feeling about 93% conflicted with my conclusion.

    • jdmann

      Since your words count only 7%, I figure your verbally confessed 7% agreement really comes to only 0.49 percent (0.07 x 0.07 = 0.0049). So what you’re really saying is, basically, you completely disagree? Did I get that right? (By which I mean, wrong?)

  4. Bob Burg

    Christie: I, Bob Burg, was polite?? I’m certain that was just a percentage of me speaking. 😉

  5. Dena Breslin

    Very untrue! Agreed! We wouldn’t have millions of successful consultants out here who we connect with motivate teach coach over the phone and through writing if that was so….
    I love stats and this is a wonderful reminder to hold your horses and check the sources before using 🙂
    Thank you John (and Bob)
    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

  6. Doug Wagner

    99.99% certain I like this post but my hands are busy typing so I hope the message comes through more than 6.99%.

    Amazing how these urban myths promulgate.

  7. Christie Ellis

    Yes Bob, you were, as always, very kind to me 🙂

  8. Steve Eanes


    Said that since words don’t matter anyway. LOL Can you feel (I mean see) me? LOL

    Thanks for the great post.


  9. Samith Pich

    Hi John,

    I’ve always believed that words matter. In writing on a page their is no tonal variation or body language. The reader creates all of their meaning simply through the words you let them read. When I was writing poetry I would agonise over days for the perfect combination of words in the perfect order!

    Which is why I greatly appreciated you and Bob visiting my blog and saying the very kind things you said. Sure I didn’t have your tone or body language but the words sure did the trick!

    With much gratitude


  10. Russ McNeil

    Amen, brother! Words aren’t everything, but they are much more significant than most people have been led to believe. Thank you for telling it like it is.

  11. Gina Carr

    Great article, John. What a surprise to hear that this statistic is false! Amazing.

  12. Carly Alyssa Thorne

    Absolutely great Article and it really used to drive me Nuts in NLP and Hypno class when they would have in print those Percentages listed. Despite the percentages being not true, communication is through tone and body language, NOT just the actual words, and it is even worse when it is through text, a lot more communication gets miscommunicated because of the lack of human interaction and not understanding the emotion and or tone intended… I always prefer phone over text if I have no choice… If you get into Vibration and if you believe we are are all Energetic Vibrations, more is actually communicated through the Actual SPOKEN WORD, however, when adding body language and tone a deeper connection is had with both parties… There are many layers to this… The more you are in tune with self the more in tune with others, hence the less body language and or tone is necessary- you feel, sense what the other person is attempting to convey. There has been a lot of new science with the Brain and studies with Visual, Auditory etc…

    Been working with Sound Vibration studies where they hook people up when they are listening to sound and voice alone, and then when they are listening to both and then adding Visual and they record the brian activity and also do PET Scans; it is all quite fascinating…

  13. David Harnadek

    Great article. I also agree that spoken (or written) words are very important when communicating with others. Maybe we’re quick to accept tone of voice and body language as being more important cues because a lot of us can’t speak (or write) anymore.

    Don’t get me wrong – I make my fair share of mistakes but do my best to no (yes, I know) proper spelling and grammar. I’ll stop there before this turns into a 3-paragraph-long sentence that just bores everyone.

    Thanks again, for a little insight and humor.


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